Finished reading our feature all about the excellent live D&D comedy show Dragon Friends and want to learn more? We pulled DM Dave Harmon aside for a chat prior to the taping of episodes 9 and 10 of Season 2 (both of which are now available on the podcast). Enjoy!
Has anyone interviewed you for the show before?
No, this is the first time anyone has interviewed me about the show! So that’s fun.
Well, you’re hitting the big time now! Our wacky homebrew site is checking in on you.
Well, look, it is very fun.
Did you play Dungeons & Dragons before Dragon Friends?
I used to play Dungeons and Dragons when I was at university, but I hadn’t played for years. I didn’t know anything about 5th Edition, I’d played 3.5, and I played 4th Edition once and I didn’t take to it. It felt too much like it was trying to be World of Warcraft — which I enjoy! — but I would rather just play World of Warcraft.
So back in university, were you playing hardcore? Did you have a regular game going?
We did! We got to about level eight or nine and it took us years. I played a monk called Lu-Sheng and I had written pages and pages of backstory for him.
Tell us about Lu-Sheng.
I always said that he was an ascetic who’d taken extreme vows of poverty but I tended to still really want my share of magic items, which some of my friends thought was an inherent contradiction in his personality.
I played with Axis of Awesome frontwoman Jordan Raskopoulos who was our half-orc Grushnek Visigeir, and a bunch of other friends and we were going on a very vanilla, sort of – well, it was all homebrewed, it was created by our friend Adam – but very, sort of high fantasy, epic.
But you know, we’d go ‘round, play some rounds of Bloodbowl, eat some pizzas and then play D&D until 4 in the morning and stumble home drunk.
Is Dragon Friends your first time DMing?
I tried DMing a couple of times and I always struggled. It’s funny, I think I’m a much better DM now that I’ve done this.
It’s kind of a baptism of fire!
Well, the thing that I always struggled with, I forced my friends to… I couldn’t do a session in under five hours. Everything would grind to a halt, I was a pedant, I did all these things that I would recommend not doing. If I didn’t know a rule I would look it up on the spot — stuff that would just make it grind to a halt. And I was concerned, I didn’t think we’d be able to do forty minute adventures which is kind of what we’re doing here but I’ve just learned to — my other background is improv — and I’ve just learned to lean much more heavily on the improv.
As long as I try and be consistent, as long as I try not to be unfair, trying not to gain an advantage, if I just make on-the-spot rulings and move things forward. That’s the key. So you’ve probably noticed, as someone who plays D&D, most minions died at one or two hits rather than using hit points, I roll initiative ahead of time — a lot of things that lower book-keeping. In fact, that one-hit thing is out of 4E.
Also, I have a lot of board games, so I couldn’t tell you where all the rules come from! But we use a lot of different ideas. Anything that makes things move quickly.
So instead of trying your hand at something small first, you decided to… jump straight to DMing in front of a live audience?
We did play one session, to test and to teach — to show them a little about what the game would be like. We did that at my house. It’s actually very funny because we did a little session where there was a character that Ben was playing called Leonard who was a sort of pick-up artist halfling bard that we loved. And we said, “Okay, well, we’re going to do everything from scratch but we’re going to keep Leonard because he’s such a great character. He’s going to be all the way through it.”
And then we did the first episode, and Hing killed him five minutes into the game. And that was who Ben was going to play. That caused a lot of thinking on the fly in the first episode, because that first episode was meant to be largely about Leonard. But I think the whole thing was better as a result.
This was the halfling they met in the castle?
Yeah! He was a statted out character, he had secrets, he had things that he knew, that they needed to know.
And that started off a fine tradition of Hing murdering your carefully crafted NPCs.
Yeah, another way we describe it amongst ourselves is that this is a situation where I get my close friends together and they bully me for two hours. And that’s definitely true. But I think that the dynamic works really well for a comedy show.
You’ve got Simon, who’s a great story-teller and really gets into the story. You have Alex, who is really good at committing to character and will make terrible decisions, not to screw with me but because she believes her character would. And then you have Hing, who makes terrible decisions just to screw with me. And so that works really nicely together.
Does Hing bully you off stage as well?
Yes, and I bully him. We have an understanding. Many, many years of bitter acrimony between us
Am I right in assuming the first adventure was a homebrew adventure of your own design?
And the second season you’re doing a pre-published written adventure. What prompted you to switch to that?
Yeah, the first season was just something I was making up as I went along. The second season is inspired by Ravenloft, which a classic D&D module, and I just thought that that might be — I knew someone who could get me a copy of it.
Oh, you’re playing based off the 1st Edition, not the recent 5th Edition re-release?
I haven’t looked at the re-release. I have the old, aged paper, actual module and I’m reading the story of that and ignoring the stat blocks and I’m just restatting things as I go. But also, as anyone who’s read Ravenloft would know, we’re touching on moments in it, but it’s very hard to keep these guys on the rails of a dungeon-crawl like that.
And it is one, big dungeon-crawl.
It is. And the things that the D&D players enjoy is really funny — it’s surprising to me — these guys have no interest in doing what I did in D&D. The thing I remember most about D&D was the excitement of collecting loot and getting stronger and levelling your character. But these guys, y’know, I can’t even get them to rob a corpse.
You mentioned in the last episode that Hing finally used his sword–
It was a magic sword!
— and you’d been planning this for months.
Yeah, it’s true. The amount of times that I’ve sat there and generated, or even just come up with rooms full of magic items – y’know, ‘here’s a nice axe for Alex, and here’s something for Hing’ and instead they just… set fire to things, stab someone in the face and just run out the door.
They don’t seem to quite get the core mechanic of being a greedy adventurer.
They’re really committed to the hobo side of being Murder Hobos, definitely.
How much co-ordination is there between you and the person who is doing the NPC voices? I mean, I’m guessing based on your reaction to Snagglepuss Strahd last episode that there’s basically no co-ordination?
We like to have a pub dinner the week beforehand, and I say some of the ideas that I’m thinking of, and we go back and forth. Usually that’s all we can manage because everyone’s sort of doing stuff. This campaign we’ve been doing… I’ve been sending emails. So there’s been a lot of moments of breakdown in communication. But again that’s part of the fun!
Did the email say, “Under no circumstances do I want Strahd to sound like Snagglepuss, I am very serious about this.”
(laughs) Well, I also use Obisdian Portal, and I put all my stuff up there and they all have access. Not all of them, but the people playing the NPCs have access to that and we use that to go back and forth. Which is also what I – we have a Star Wars episode coming out which is being released tonight or tomorrow –
This is the one with Bajo from ABC TV’s Good Game in it?
Yeah! With Bajo, and David Cunningham played all the NPCs in that. And he actually worked out how to edit the Obsidian Portal and edited some of my descriptions and I didn’t notice until I was on stage. So that was fun too.
From listening to you on stage, it seems like you clearly have a pretty extensive knowledge of the Forgotten Realms. Do you ever feel that that’s kind of wasted on a party of psychopaths and Snagglepuss fans?
I think it’s important! I think it’s that old Simpsons line, “a sap’s gotta have dignity”. Them breaking everything down wouldn’t be as funny if there wasn’t somebody trying to make it work.
So you feed yourself into the grinder for them, every time.
Yeah, a little bit. But also, I don’t know as much as I try and fake. I research the areas that we’re going into, and I pay attention to place names. Thank god there’s that Forgotten Realms wiki page which I just use all the time. The amount of articles about Waterdeep that I read before last game… And I still made up a lot of Waterdeep – the Ship-Line and the Beggar King were all just sort of things we made up.
I really liked the first campaign! I mean, I really like this campaign as well because we’ve played through Ravenloft ourselves, but the first one was great because as a DM I could see where you were going with the improvised NPCs, and the storyline.
Oh cool! Well, we’re starting to get ready for the next campaign actually, because this is going to end of Halloween.
So that date is set in stone? Even if everything goes horribly wrong?
Ahhh, look I’m so dumb, anytime I say that anything is going to happen, because I’ve got no control. But that’s my goal at the moment. I mean, you know Ravenloft, they’ve gotta collect a few items and then have a showdown. So that’s moving forward, and then my goal is basically for the same characters to fall through a portal and find themselves in another world which will be an opportunity to again change the system. I’d like to see them go on a Five Rings adventure… I also really wanted them to be Shadowrunners for a while and just keep them moving around. Some planar journeys and stuff like that.
Let’s talk about the special guests. You started with a few episodes where it was just the main characters and there were no special guests, and then it kind of gradually transitioned to having a special guest every episode. Was that always the plan? To have special guests every time or did you intend just to have the core group and then these special guests were adding so much that you…
Originally, me and Ben were talking about having the cast constantly rotate, that when your character died — we were going to be really brutal and kill characters constantly – and that was when we thought the main joke was going to be people not knowing how to play D&D. But I’m kind of glad, instead that they’ve grown into their characters and the characters have become much stronger, which we wouldn’t have got if people were just using disposable characters. I want to see a lot of characters come back, I’m really hoping that we can bring back characters that other people have played.
Like Jordan made a return at the end of season one?
Yeah, we’ve got plans to bring Jordan back as well, again.
With your special guests, do they get a say in what they’re going to be? How do you go about sounding them out? Are they like “I’ll only come on on the condition that I get to be a goblin”?
As part of all the bookkeeping, I generally do the character sheets. Which is also partly because people don’t know how to… drive their characters yet. So generally what we say is, “What do you want to be? Can you describe them in a sentence? And do you have a name for them?” and so Mark, who would have played today wanted to be some kind of filthy goblin. So I built a character based on that. But some people have much more information. Jordan designed Kithercy because Jordan’s interested in D&D. It depends, person to person.
What about Dilge? How did Dilge come about? Did you sort of say, “We want Philge’s brother”?
I think that was an idea that we fed to Tom where we said like, “Oh we have this idea that Philge has a brother, would that be something that would interest you?” and if Tom hadn’t been interested and wanted to do something else, we would have gone in another direction. That’s who’s playing tonight, Tom is our guest tonight. He’ll be playing a filthy goblin creature. Well, a deep gnome, but I don’t think the players will see the distinction (laughs)
One of my favourite moments was when Hing went away and actually read the Player’s Handbook between seasons, and he came back and was like “Oh, Daaaave”. Were you expecting any of your players to do that?
Yeah, Good Games gave each of them a Player’s Handbook after the first season as a gift.
Behind your back?
Oh, I wish they hadn’t. Simon was like “Ooh! Art!” because that’s what Simon’s into. And I think Alex has still left hers backstage. Hing went away in the break and actually read the thing. So that’s a problem for me because, y’know, I make mistakes all the time and I rely on being able to handwave things. So now he’s asking all these questions, now he has a familiar. But we’re finding new ways to punish him.
He apparently hasn’t read the part where it explains that familiars aren’t exactly combat material.
He reads ridiculous things. He kind of understands some things and then he doesn’t understand others, like he goes, “What’s this Hand of Vecna? Can I buy one of those?” and we’re like “NO!”
What other favourite moments do you have that really stand out?
I really like the developing relationship between Freezo and his familiar Bu-Shu because we’ve struggled to put Hing in his place so much and Edan’s character of Bu-Shu just does it so effortlessly! So I really enjoy that. I also really like — I’m a sucker for the D&D moments. I really enjoy the whole showdown with the cult and even just — well, before Ben opened his mouth — the meeting with Strahd. I actually enjoy that kind of thing.
How excited were you when Bobby was like “Is that moonlight?”
(laughs) Yeah, that’s another thing — knowing Simon for a long time and knowing his affinity with wolves and creatures of the wild, that he would get into it. And it was great because I already had an inkling that we were going to do a horror campaign next and that gave them a nice hook – they’ve got to find a cure for Bobby’s lycanthropy or at least a way that they can control it.
How long do you plan to keep Dragon Friends going? You said you planned to do some inter-dimensional travel next season but is it just until we all get bored?
Yeah, we’re definitely going to do one more season. It’s also one of those projects that will just end when I can’t get these people into the room. Everybody is busy and everybody’s getting busier, which is always the way for any kind of D&D thing. We keep exploring ways to make it a bit more profitable — it’s obviously easier to do when you can pay people and things like that, which is why we’ve launched the Patreon and we’ve experimented with a sponsor this season. And we’ve got a couple of other things like that we want to keep trying, but it’s really about us trying to find a model that we like and that the fans respond to — such as there are — and that everyone’s happy to do. As long as we can, is the answer!
Are you playing any D&D in your spare time?
I’m playing Shadowrun: Hong Kong on my computer at the moment but that’s about it. I was playing Only War, which is a Warhammer 40K Imperial Guard/Dark Heresy thing. That was the last thing I played with a bunch of people — Jordan as well. But we never organise to get together and it’s just the funniest thing about Dragon Friends for me is that I’ve got a situation where my friends have to meet the first Wednesday of every month for two hours and play D&D and that would never happen in my life. You know what it’s like, it’s impossible to get eight people in a room.
Thank you for the chat! Where can our readers find out more about Dave Harmon?
Well, we’ve obviously got thedragonfriends.com, that’s our website — and the other thing that I do is a big zombie survival game for like 600 people called Zedtown. That’s the other roleplaying game that I do.
Is that what you do for a day job?
At the moment it’s a day job that doesn’t pay very well! In the last six months we’ve done about four games, and we’re just trying to ramp that up. So you can find out about that at zedtown.com.
Thanks to Dave for taking the time to talk to us!
Photos by Chris Starnawski – Omnes Photography
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